Finally, there's a silver lining in the ever-darker economic cloud: For once, corporate IT people are facing a gadget season in which we can honestly tell users, "I'm sorry, but we can't support use of your new gadget. This year, we simply can't afford it."
This year, they'll believe us. But we shouldn't stop there.
After all, we know it's a dodge. We can never really afford to support the gadgets that start arriving every year about this time. Some of them end up in users' hands as holiday gifts, some because users can't resist getting them for themselves. They bring them to us, figuring that a new smart phone or email device must have some business use.
And many gadgets can be useful in business — after a big investment in hardening security, increasing functionality and testing, testing, testing. But even in a good year, we can't afford to do all that for every gadget. And the makers of relatively inexpensive, consumer-level gadgets won't do it for us.
As a result, there's only a short list of things we can OK for business use: BlackBerries, iPhones, Treos. That doesn't make users happy. And unhappy users will often try to use their new gadgets on the job anyway.
That's why, even though we have a great excuse this year for curtailing gadget support, we shouldn't stop at just saying no, or even explaining why.
We should offer alternatives. And suggestions. And maybe even bend the rules a bit.
Look, some gadgets really are just toys. But that's how we originally viewed PCs and wi-fi, remember? The ones that will eventually be useful are pretty much indistinguishable from the junk.
And the easiest way to sort through the gadgets is to let users do the real testing.
So when they bring in a Peek, that new $100 wireless email device, and ask why a BlackBerry gets the nod but not their gadget, start by putting on a long face, sighing deeply and explaining that the user's new gizmo doesn't have a BlackBerry's security or ability to work with Exchange.
Then add: "But you know, you can still use it for your personal email, and I'd appreciate it if you'd keep us updated on how it works. Once there's money in the budget again, this might be worth another look for corporate use."
Same thing when users bring in an Android phone like the T-Mobile G1 and wonder why the iPhone gets special status. Don't mention that you had to support the iPhone last year because the CEO bought one. But remind them that the maps and web access and other features are fine for their personal use, and you'd love to hear about ways the phone makes them more effective on the job even without IT department support.
Likewise with netbooks. And Kindles. And smart pens. And pocket-size projectors. Say no, you can't support them — but yes, you'd love to get feedback on how well they work.
Then be sure to follow up. For some gadgets, the user's interest will dwindle naturally. In other cases, a user will conclude on his own that it's still a great device, but not for business use. That's a great, cheap, practical product evaluation — and all it costs you is a few words.
And if the user finds real business value in the gizmo? You can still say you can't afford to support it, at least for now. And he'll believe you -- at least for now.
But he just might convince you that it can deliver a real competitive advantage -- that it's the next iPhone or BlackBerry. And that's a gadget you can't afford not to support.